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Gaining Ground(s)

Coffee bought in Pittsburgh could help improve life half a world away

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 Spilling the Beans?

 

During his decades selling life insurance, Worth Helms never imagined he'd spend his retirement as a Ugandan coffee mogul.

Actually, "mogul" may be too strong a word: Helms receives no compensation for his role as president of the board of Ugandan Gold Coffee. Every nickel of profit the company makes goes back into the Bunyoro-Kitara region of Uganda, which surrounds Ugandan Gold's farm in the town of Hoima.

"The beauty of this product is, when you buy it, you don't have to wonder if a portion of the proceeds are going back into the community," says Helms, "because it all goes back. The money is taken off the top to pay employees, run the farm and have the beans roasted and stored once they're here.

"After that, the profit is going right back to the community, where it belongs."

Helms, of Wexford, and five friends took part in a missionary trip to Hoima in the late 1990s. They had already donated money to the region, but after coming home they wanted to devise a more lasting solution to Uganda's problems. The country's residents have a life expectancy of 43, a 60 percent jobless rate and a per capita income of $320. One in five Ugandan children will die from malaria by age 5.

"Rather than just sending money," Helms explains, "we wanted to give them a future."

In 1999, the group formed the nonprofit Christian East-African and Equatorial Development Trust and began raising funds to begin the project.

Helms is upfront about his Christianity, though he says he didn't get into this business to proselytize. "Without my faith, I wouldn't be doing this," Helms says. "But the mission here goes beyond any church. ... We are not going in there and telling them, 'If you don't believe in God, you're not getting any water.'"

The firm raised $200,000 in private and public donations, and in 2000 leased 37.5 acres on the Wambabya River. The farm has 30 permanent employees that earn about $30 per month (the Ugandan minimum wage is just $3 per month, according to the U.S. Department of State). In addition, Ugandan Gold employees receive lunch everyday and Helms says the board recently voted to give employees bonuses of about $30. Health-care professionals are periodically brought on site as a form of health care for employees.

It took about four years to turn the first crop; today there are 16,000 trees planted on the site. Ugandan Gold has also sought to rise above the corruption that dominates the area.

"There is a lot of corruption in Uganda," Helms says. "But we came in with the mindset that we wouldn't be a party to it and we haven't been. We have not paid one nickel in bribes to anyone and, unfortunately, a lot of companies do."

In 2006, the company turned its first profit and went to work digging 11 water wells in the region at a cost of about $1,000 each. Previously, villagers were forced to walk miles to get water out of a muddy hole, Helms said.

The 37.5-acre farm is now producing about 50,000 pounds of beans annually, 20,000 of which are shipped to the U.S. for resale. The rest is sold straight from the farm to local customers.

"I'm proud of the fact that even if we didn't sell one bag of coffee here in the States, that the farm could sustain itself on what it makes selling coffee out of the front door of the farm," Helms says. It costs around $17,000 to run the farm annually, which pays for supplies, equipment and the 30 permanent jobs that have been created.

Helms touts the company as "better than fair-trade" coffee. To be considered a fair-trade product, Helms says, the cost per pound paid to the producer is about $1.24. Ugandan Gold, on the other hand, sells retail for $8 a pound, about $3 of which goes toward stateside production expenses: roasting, packaging and shipping. That leaves $5 of every pound to be reinvested in the farm and the region.

Ugandan Gold also imports the coffee itself, allowing the enterprise to cut out fees to middlemen. For a time, Helms had coffee stacked in his garage to save on storage and shipping fees.

But the company isn't just marketing a clean conscience, Helms stresses.

"The bonus to helping out the people of Uganda is that when you buy this, you're getting a really good cup of coffee. The story of this farm may sell the first pound, but the taste sells the second."

The story certainly sold Joe Walsh and Mike Selvaggio.

Walsh, the president of O'Neill Coffee in West Middlesex, roasts and packages the beans. Selvaggio, the head of Old Time Coffee, in McKees Rocks, stores the coffee supply and sells it to his customers. (The coffee may also be purchased on the Internet at www.ugandangold.com.)

"As soon as I heard their plan, I thought it was a good idea," says Walsh. "And the more I work with them and the more I'm involved, the more impressed I get with what they're doing.

"At $8, it is a little more expensive than most people pay for a pound of coffee. But when you realize the good that will be done for the money, I certainly think it's worth it."

Selvaggio says the coffee was a hard sell to some of his regular customers at first, because the taste is stronger than most people are used to. He tried blending it with milder beans for sale to his commercial clients, and since then sales have increased.

Helms says the company is doing well, though he admits distribution and marketing has been a weakness. The brew is available online and locally at T-Bones grocery, in Wexford. The key, Helms says, is getting the word out. But that can be tough when all of the company's board members and officials are volunteers. Even the company's accountant is a volunteer.

"It's a whole lot of work, and you have to have a passion for it to make it work," says Helms.

CEED's undertaking is a growing movement in nonprofits, says Peggy Morrison Outon, executive director of the Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management at Robert Morris University.

"You've entered into the world of social ventures," Outon says. "The whole point of these social ventures is to make these nonprofits less dependent on foundation grants and government contracts.

"What these people are doing sounds terrific."

In order to qualify as a "social venture," the endeavor must fit into the nonprofit's mission. The business also can't provide one penny of profit for any individual at the nonprofit level.

Locally, Outon says there are other examples of these ventures, including a Squirrel Hill Ben and Jerry's ice cream shop that partners with the local nonprofit Life's Work, which helps the developmentally handicapped.

The important thing for these types of ventures, Outon says, is that the nonprofit has the discipline to run the operation it starts.

"Some nonprofits have lost a lot of money in these ventures because they were under-capitalized -- they didn't realize what it would take to make the business turn a profit -- or just didn't know how to run a particular business," she says. "That this group has been able to turn a profit says a lot about the organization.

"In this case, those water wells represent the mercy and justice of the mission, and that's far more important than the economics."

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